Religious Indoctrination in the Public Schools

All three of my children are in public schools. They have also been home-schooled at times, and attended private schools. All-in-all, I don't find the public schools my kids are attending so bad. But once in a while...

Like today, I was looking over my youngest's science homework, and found him being told: "Everything in the universe is made of atoms. You are made of atoms."

This, of course, is eliminative materialism. It means that things like, for instance, ethics and morality do not exist, since they are obviously not made of atoms. And it means that "you" are nothing more than your physical body.

This is not a scientific position. Given its absurdity, it's not even really correct to call it a philosophical position, although it sometimes is able to slip by the unwary as if it were one. And it flat out contradicts the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism... and I bet just about any other religion one can think of. (Except, of course, for the religion called eliminative materialism.)

So much for religious neutrality in public education, huh?

UPDATE: And it would have been trivial to fix the statements so they don't have the problem I mention, and so that they (ought to) offend no one:

"Everything physical in the universe is made of atoms. Your body is made of atoms."

(Of course, even then the first sentence is questionable: Is light not a physical thing? But at least it is no longer staking out a controversial metaphysical position.)


  1. Anonymous9:34 PM

    Okay, I am going to step carefully over the landmines and ask:

    Were they homeschooled in your libertarian/anarchocapitalist stage of life? Were your views a contributing factor?

  2. I am oddly touched by your faith that the school is using language so precisely that you can know so definitively what "thing" means the most sweeping, er, thing it could possibly mean in that sentence.

    Me, I'm deducting points for their not adding "in fields of force" after "atoms."

  3. Well it is a scientific position insofar as it's not unreasonable to hypothesize that ethics and morality are simply the words we've attached to certain neural firings. Might that hypothesis be wrong? Certainly. It wouldn't be the first. But given what we know, it's not an unreasonable hypothesis to have. And if it's not an unreasonable hypothesis it seems fine to call it a scientific position.

  4. "Well it is a scientific position insofar as it's not unreasonable to hypothesize that ethics and morality are simply the words we've attached to certain neural firings."

    1) It's flat out silly, in fact.
    2) And completely untestable. What, is one going to go around looking for little elementary moral particles, or morons, as Dworkins calls them, and, failing to find them, declare "it's all just neural firings"?

    There is nothing scientific about this hypothesis at all. It is an element of modern scientistic religious faith.

  5. Jim, yes, the first sentence might simply be sloppy writing. The second one is pretty definite, however.

    Prateek, definitely my anarchist views were part of their homeschooling. But they enrolled in public school -- at their request, btw -- during that phase as well.

    In fact, that the public school teachers I met so confounded the anarchist picture of what they *should* be like was a big factor in my "un-anarchisting."

  6. Clearly the textbook was written by cunning Straussians who feel your child is not ready to handle the knowledge of "photons" yet.

    (Is an ionized plasma beam made of "atoms" if all the electrons have been blown off? I say no!)

    Anyway, gosh, textbook language could have been more precise. This is very bad! But it's really hard to believe that the authors even meant to imply that Teh Numinuss!!! reduces to substance, unless the book goes on to explain to Little Johnny that - because everything is made of atoms - therefore there is no Love or Hope, and he won't see Shaggy in Heaven.

    Meanwhile, back to a spirit of general concordance, I have to count the superbly run elementary school my kids attended as, similarly to you, undermining my beliefs about "statism."

  7. Jim wrote:

    Anyway, gosh, textbook language could have been more precise.

    Jim, I don't think they goofed. I think they believe physical things are more real than non-physical things. This isn't a strawman Gene set up; Daniel Kuehn just endorsed it. I used to believe it myself, until Gene unmaterialisted me.

  8. "But it's really hard to believe that the authors even meant to imply that Teh Numinuss!!! reduces to substance..."

    Of *course* they are denying the reality of the human spirit: I showed how easy it would be for them to avoid that, simply by saying "Your body is made of atoms."

    What your mockery ("Teh Numinuss!!!") makes clear is that you think what they are denying is dumb, and so you are fine with them denying it. So what, it's not religiously neutral -- it's partisan in a way you like.

  9. Consider, Jim, how it would strike you if your kid's science book said, "Humans were created in the image of God."

  10. Oops, continuation:

    And I said, "Jim, you're worried about nothing! It's not like the book went on to discuss the trinity and incarnation! Jeez, so touchy!"

  11. Gene, I probably count as a materialist by your standards, even though I believe strongly in a lot of "Teh Numinous!!!!" as emergent properties. I do not look for the resurrection of the dead, so I'd definitely take any anti-theistic message embedded in the quoted sentence less personally than you would.

    But that's not my point. For me to abstract a real religious claim from the sentence would require me to consider it "good writing": in control of its own expression.

    But it's not. It doesn't even make a valid scientific claim and it purports to be about science. It's plainly untrue, even from a materialist standpoint that "EveryTHING in the universe is MADE of atoms," if we take "thing" and "made" to have broad rather than narrow meanings. It's plainly untrue that "EveryTHING in the universe is MADE of NOTHING BUT atoms," too.

    The only way I can squeeze some scientific validity out of the claim is to construe "everything" and "made of" relatively narrowly. Once I've done that, it ceases to make any claims to eliminative materialism too: if I can't get a valid scientific claim out of a sentence in a science book without bracketing off a lot of obvious omissions, how can I take it as making a valid philosophical claim? The very words I have mentally adjust for the sake of Science! ("everything", "made") are the words that undergird any philosophical claim it could be making.

  12. Jim, I granted you the point that the first statement "Everything is made of atoms" is pretty sloppy. But how can you make the same case for the second one: "You are made of atoms"?

    That is a quite explicit denial that man has any non-material aspect.


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